Wines for Any Holiday Feast

A man's hand pouring red wine into an etched crystal wine glass at a large dining table with a centre piece of candles and evergreens and plates of indistinguishable food.

Bring out the best in your Christmas cooking, with these stellar wine pairings.

By Erin Henderson

Christmas, in all its gluttonous glory, is a bit of a free-for-all when it comes to the Big Dinner.

Unlike Thanksgiving, where holiday dictum is that turkey shall reign supreme on dinner tables across the land, Christmas takes a more culinary bohemian vibe, with anything tickles your fancy and teases your hunger.

This year, we’re serving turkey at my family celebration, but mostly because it inspires my sister to make her outstanding turkey pot pies with the leftovers. However, in the past we’ve served everything from prime rib to German rouladen for The Feast.

When I was in Bologna last fall, I took a pasta making class where our instructor mentioned that locals line up at 3am for the fish markets to open on December 24th. Bologna, like much of Italy, celebrates Christmas on the Eve, and fish and seafood are the traditional offerings. If Christmas cooks don’t get to the tiny fish market stalls early, they are out of luck for the holiday, and that would be unthinkable.

A close friend of mine, who hails from solid French-Canadian heritage, has a “tort-off” every year. A delicious competition where her family all pile into the kitchen to make their versions of Quebec’s famous tourtiere – a savoury meat pie with as many recipes as there are cooks. Rabbit, venison, pheasant are among the more traditional (and now somewhat eccentric) offerings; pork, beef, and duck among the more commonplace these days.

It’s fascinating to see the multitude of dishes people around the world prepare for their holiday banquets – both cultural and personal. There was no way to list them all, of course, but below is a list of the popular dishes most frequently served in Ontario today along with ideas for very good wine to pair.

Traditional Turkey

Bird is the word at Christmas in the North America and the United Kingdom. I couldn't find any stats for Canada, but apparently 22 million turkeys are on holiday tables in the US, while in the UK, 10 million turkeys are the stuff of British feasts.

I often like to think of wine pairings the same way I would serve sauces, gravies, or dressings for my meal. For a classic turkey dinner, where tart cranberry sauce and rich gravy are an integral component, I would reach for similar flavours in my wine.

Fruity Beaujolais, made from the Gamay grape and filled with notes of red cherry, strawberry and black pepper is an excellent choice for red, mimics the role of cranberry sauce. Whereas Chardonnay, silky and smooth in texture with buttery notes works with the meal the way gravy would.

Holiday Ham

Another popular dish to serve at Christmas, the ham, glistening with glaze and crisp from browning, makes an impressive centre piece on your holiday buffet. Straddling both salty and sweet, honey, brown sugar, and pineapple are common coatings for ham, adding a sweet juxtaposition to the savoury bite of the salt-cured flesh.

Great wine pairings need to have a bolt of acidity to liven up the rich ham, and a little bit of sweetness to stand up to the glaze. Riesling is a no-brainer here, as it has both the electric bolt of bright acid and fruit-forward sweetness in complimentary flavours of peach, apple and honey. For red wine, a New World Pinot Noir, perhaps something from New Zealand or California, with lots of ripe fruit would work well – especially if your ham glaze is seasoned with warming spices like clove, cinnamon, or star anise.

Impressive Prime Rib

Prime rib, especially one with the bone-in, is a majestic sight on the holiday table. Both spectacular and alluringly imposing, the hulking frame of the roast harkens back to the celebratory feasts of Pagan holidays, resplendent in deep-winter ceremony. A roaring fire and overflowing bowls of starchy vegetables and creamy popovers complete the tableau.

Prime rib can handle a full bodied red if you so desire, but I prefer something medium bodied with a bit of fruit and spice to offset the tender fat and soft flesh. A Northern Rhône Syrah, with dark fruits laced with black pepper spice flavour, is a gorgeous option. Whites become slightly more limited, but white Chateauneuf-du-Pape, typically some kind of blend of Grenache Blanc, Rousanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Grenache Gris, and other native grapes, is deeply complex and rich with a creamy texture. It holds up well to dishes that have that silky fat component.

Fish and Seafood

Cleary this could go any which way as there are as many textures and flavours to fish and seafood as there are ways to prepare them.

In Eastern Europe, carp is traditional – an oily, rich freshwater fish. Salted cod is the mainstay of Portugal. Denmark and northern European countries like Herring, pickled or otherwise, and the more luxurious and flush amongst us, go for lobster – especially along the east coast of Canada and the USA.

For rich and fatty, intensely flavoured fish like anchovies, sardines, and mackerel, pick something that can cut through that fat. White wines from coastal regions that have a bit of salinity will help liven up the dish. Think Muscadet from Loire, France, Assyrtiko from Greece or even Vinho Verde from Portugal.

If you are having something more mild in flavour such as halibut, seabass, or shrimp, go for an equally delicate wine. Chablis, an unoaked Chardonnay from Burgundy, Soave from northern Italy, or dry Pinot Gris from Oregon would all be nice compliments

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